After giving up three sacks to a New Orleans Saints defense last week that wasn't known for its pass pressure, there's a little concern in Falcons nation about what will happen when they face off against the St. Louis Rams in this week's contest.
Last season, the Rams' young defense generated 52 sacks, good for a tie for first in the NFL. Last week they forced three sacks against the Cardinals and added five QB hits. All three sacks came from Robert Quinn, a Rams 2011 first-round draft pick. In 2012, Quinn burst onto the scene with 10.5 sacks and after last week he looks to be ready to take his game to the next level.
Already at that level is the defensive end opposite Quinn in most defensive formations. Chris Long is also a first-round pick, the second overall pick in 2008, and he looks to notch his third straight seasons of double-digit sacks this year.
In the middle of all that edge rushing is yet another first-round draft pick. At defensive tackle, Michael Brockers, last year's top pick for the Rams, can apply the pressure as well, but he does most of his work from the inside. The list of talent the Rams feature on the D-line only begins there and Falcons head coach Mike Smith says it's a scheme defensive-minded head coach Jeff Fisher has run for a long time.
"Their defensive scheme is very similar to what Jeff did in Tennessee, very familiar with it," Smith said. "Similar to what they do in Detroit. They want to run those defensive ends off the ball. They want to rush the passer and play the run on the way to the passer. That's kind of the mentality."
One of the more unique formations the Rams front four presents is a package that includes three or four defensive ends along the front instead of the traditional two end/two tackle looks in the 4-3 defense. Center Peter Konz says it's not a personnel grouping they use frequently, but when they do it's a challenge and it's usually on third down. The formation in general creates matchup challenges on the interior of the offensive line.
"It tries to get guys that aren't normally on a D-end, guarding him," Konz said. "Defensive tackles are stronger. In the middle you get heavier, stronger guys, but when you get a lighter guy, someone who is used to getting a pass rush, they try to get you on islands and separate you from everybody else so they can get an easy one. We're going to have to understand who we've got and what the personnel is, just like we do every week. We have to understand what their moves are as opposed to the guys we're normally going against on the inside."
Outside of that quirk, they don't do much in the way of exotic defensive looks. With the talent up front they have, they line up their four guys and try to get to the quarterback with just those rushers. As was the case last year and last week, they're successful a good percentage of the time and are disruptive regularly.
In addition to the sacks and QB hits they generated last week, the Rams forced three fumbles and recovered one. The pressure their talent gets up front poses the most problems because they are all good one-on-one players. Because there's so many of them, it's tough to double-team any of them without paying the price.
So what do the Falcons do to slow down this pass rush and make sure Ryan has the necessary time to get the ball to his playmakers? For starters, it helps that he's got Julio Jones and Roddy White on the outside to make plays. Both starting corners for St. Louis surrendered touchdowns in coverage last week and they present favorable matchups for the offense.
The screen game, the league's widely-recognized slower of pass rushes, can be highly helpful as well. Last week running back Steven Jackson caught five passes for 45 yards and a repeat performance in the face of the pass rush could be coming.
Another option will be to get the no-huddle offense rolling, something the Falcons have been effective with in the past. On the road in loud stadiums the hurry-up offense can be challenging to accomplish and Matt Ryan said earlier this week the no-huddle has competing advantages and disadvantages. While moving quickly on offense prevents the defense from making substitutions, the same is true for the offense.
Ultimately the Falcons will have to block Long, Quinn and Co. by any means necessary. Smith said he anticipates the biggest jump in improvement year after year from Week 1 to Week 2 so maybe by Monday this will be a moot point. Either way, the only way to get better and expect better results this Sunday against the Rams is to put in the work this week and Ryan said that's what they intend to do.
"I think as an offense as a whole, we just need to prepare a little bit better, play a little bit better," Ryan said. "We'll certainly refine the game plan and figure out what we need to do to do that as the week progresses. At this point it's about just learning what we're trying to do, whether that's getting the ball out quick or throwing it deep, we'll see how it shakes out."